OLPC Discovers Economic Reality; Cuts Staff

from the but-the-dream-is-closer... dept

We’ve certainly been somewhat harsh on Nicholas Negroponte’s OLPC program in the past — not because we don’t like the idea of helping underprivileged kids building technology skills, but because of the way Negroponte has run the project from the beginning. He’s acted as if he were the only one who should be working towards that goal and any competition was seen as a betrayal. Also, he took a very top down Negroponte-knows-best approach to building the laptop, which has led to significant problems within the team and with the product not living up to expectations — showing once again that ideas are easy, it’s the execution that’s difficult, and if you limit the execution to just one company, you’re cutting off a lot of the opportunity.

So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that OLPC is now cutting its workforce in half, and slashing salaries for remaining employees. Negroponte blames the economy, but that seems like an especially weak excuse, given just how strongly small, inexpensive mini-laptops (netbooks) are selling these days. Clearly, there’s tremendous demand out there for super cheap, small laptops. The problem is that Negroponte decided from the beginning that his product was only for kids in developing countries, and left a massive market underserved (the rather weak give one, get one program was hardly serving the market).

But, again, the point is clear: the overall market is doing a rather amazing job serving the market. They’re providing all sorts of very cheap mini laptops at price points even below what the OLPC is going for. No, most netbooks don’t have some of the bells and whistles of the OLPC that help it survive a rough environment, but it seems rather likely that used netbooks and newer cheaper netbooks will find their way into developing countries soon enough as well — just as second hand mobile phones have made it. So, in the end, Negroponte’s original vision may get served, but it will get served by the market and competition, rather than his own grand master plan.

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Comments on “OLPC Discovers Economic Reality; Cuts Staff”

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Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) says:

Too bad!

Thank goodness for the competition to put Negroponte in his place. To think he could have had a very successful product for the kids of Djibouti if he would have collaborated with the ‘competition’ in the first place; combining the useful/successful ideas with their own.

“OLPC Discovers Economic Reality; Cuts Staff”

Too bad the government doesn’t realize this. In Iowa, the State hired 5 people to look at how to cut expenses at the state level to deal with the economic downturn. Doink?!

Analmouse Coward says:

have anyone ever actually seen an OLPC in public?

Well, Well, Well.

Old Nickies going down, how could we not see that happening.

They were among the first to be designing netbooks. back when i started getting excited about these there were only three contenders coming to market. the classmate, the eee and the olpc.

They could have been the first, the greatest, the morally superior, but they ballsed it up and became virtually vaporware. have you ever actually seen one in public?

I remember negro kicking off and trying to get the classmate off the market and lost one of his biggest suppliers/developers (because he decided that anyone else even remotely involved in his project had NO right to turn a profit in the same arena)

Why did he lose out to the eee you ask.
1. User comunnity
2. Timing
3. Cost
4. IMHO the eee was the better product.
5. I could chuck XP on it.

When he went round with his scowl and rightous swagger he made no friends, he alienated companies and he pushed away the geek vote.

In my not so humble opinion……. What a tit!

Alan Gerow (user link) says:

Bibles are not great

I don’t advocate giving One Bible Per Child. The paper in bibles is far too thin and burns too quickly. The children will not be supplied with nearly enough heat. I propose we start One Patriot Act Per Child. The Patriot Act is so large and bloated, that it could warm a family of 6 for 3 months. Think of the good that burning our legislation would serve the developing countries around the world.

Save A Life. Burn A Law.

Mercury Merlin (user link) says:


Written from my XO computer, which is delightful and presently running Xubuntu from SD card. I was trying to order this machine for the last two years, I wanted to give them my money and contribute to the project, until the European Give one Get one I was sadly unable to do so.

The XO is a great machine and I am very happy with it, at same time the idea benefits from commercial interest and exploitation, I wish the eee PC the best of luck and all commercial success. The XO-2 promises to be even more ground-breaking, I can only hope that it sparks as much further innovation.

Mercury Merlin

Charbax (user link) says:

OLPC is still cheapest

Even a year after OLPC XO-1 and the first Netbooks hae been out, the OLPC XO-1 is still by far the cheapest solution. Not even taking into account the cheaper and easier to replace parts, the much longer battery recharge cycle lifetime, the still MUCH lower battery power requirements to power the OLPC XO-1 compared to Intel powered Netbooks.

Intel powered Netbooks are still not providing a solution to Children in developping countries and that is why OLPC needs to release an Intel-killer ARM based $100 laptop in the next few months. And that is what they are focusing on.

Linux Sugar is continued to be developed by Fedora and open source community people, and should be customized by local task force of Linux programmers setup by the governments that implement the laptop. OLPC should not be required to continue to pay those contractors to do that Linux work.

The next version of OLPC the XO-2 can be based on Android and ARM Cortex processor, that is how it will have more than 20 hours of battery life, that is how Google and other giants will be the ones taking care of optimizing of the Linux OS and that is how the price per laptop can be pushed below $100 as quickly as possible.

XO-1 has been shipped to 700 thousand Children worldwide so far, mostly in developing nations. It can still reach a total of a few million children in the coming months, depending on politicians or philanthropists paying for the laptops. XO-2 on the other hand, using an embedded platform based on ARM Cortex A8 or A9, will reach hundreds of millions of children and reach the $50 per laptop price point. XO-2 will also move the whole PC and Laptop industry into using ARM and Linux instead of Intel and Microsoft. Good riddance.

KD says:


@Mike: “… not because we don’t like the idea of helping underprivileged kids building technology skills …”

Do you really not understand that the OLPC Project’s aim was NOT helping underprivileged kids build technology skills, but rather to provide them with new tools for getting an education (not a technology education)?


@Analmouse Coward: “They could have been the first, the greatest, the morally superior, but they ballsed it up and became virtually vaporware. have you ever actually seen one in public?”

You seem not to realize that the OLPC Project intent is NOT to build a netbook to sell to the general public. It’s a non-profit, charitable organization, for crying out loud. The only sales to the general public were the limited-time Give One Get One promotions to help raise a little money for the project by letting those few people who really lusted after the device to get one. The project’s true aim is to improve education in underdeveloped regions by devising a new approach to education and the tools to support it, and selling them to the governments of those regions (not to the general public). The OLPC laptop is one of the main tools, but not the only one.


I’m not saying that Negroponte is God or is right about everything. At the moment, it sure seems he was overly optimistic about how fast he could sell the governments on his approach. Maybe his approach is wrong; maybe it is right, but the governments are foot-dragging; maybe other things are the reason. And apparently, Negroponte isn’t a very easy guy to get along with, which interferes with getting help from the Free Software community.

Maybe Negroponte wasn’t the ideal person to run such a project, but nobody else was doing it, and he has had a bit of success. Too bad it hasn’t been more successful, so far.

But I still think the fundamental idea of the OLPC Project is one well worth trying. The past attempts to improve education in those regions seem not to have been very successful. The small trials of the OLPC approach seem to be encouraging. I hope they continue and do prove to be successful at improving the education in the underdeveloped regions. That would be a big help to bringing their poor conditions to an end.

Analmouse Coward says:

Re: rebuttals

You have a point, i just don’t agree with any reason not to let this into the hands of the general public, if they had got the user community involved they could really get the best out of the product and find potentials even they hadn’t thought of.

I totally agree with the aims and ideals of the charity. they are to be applauded for what they are trying to do.

Erik Jan (profile) says:

Market? Check this story..

The problems for OLPC seem largely to be caused by the fact that the project is seen as a threath by the two largest monopolies in the IT business, Intel and Microsoft. It is also clear that this was not very well handled by the OLPC management. But to say that this has anything to do with markets and competition is more myth than reality.

For more background on this check


Ronald J Riley (profile) says:

Like usual, Mike has missed what OLPC's mistake was.

Mike, you are right that Negroponte made some big mistakes in his approach but wrong as to what those mistakes were. Hands down his biggest mistake was to shun patent protection.

Small companies use patent protection to hold big players at bay. It gives the small company a chance to grow and prosper.

Without patent protection the sharks, companies like Intel and Microsoft can use their deep pockets and marketing clout to crush the small company and that is exactly what has happened with OLPC. It is only a matter of time before OLPC expires with a whimper.

The bottom line is that OLPC did all the heavy lifting and the big guys appropriated all their ideas, even going so far as to get inside OLPC’s operation to gather the information.

What you should be learning from the OLPC case is that patent protection is incredibly important for a small company.

Ronald J. Riley,

Speaking only on my own behalf.
President – http://www.PIAUSA.org – RJR at PIAUSA.org
Executive Director – http://www.InventorEd.org – RJR at InvEd.org
Senior Fellow – http://www.patentPolicy.org
President – Alliance for American Innovation
Caretaker of Intellectual Property Creators on behalf of deceased founder Paul Heckel
Washington, DC
Direct (202) 318-1595 – 9 am to 9 pm EST.

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